Innovation in Irrigation

SMRID Tour summary by Taren Hager, OWC Staff

“Innovation” means introducing new things. But, to be successful, innovators don’t just introduce new things; they introduce things that are cheaper and better than what preceded them.” - Anonymous

Irrigation Districts and users of irrigation water in southern Alberta are always searching for innovative ways to improve efficiencies around water supply and water quality. This requires being flexible to change when it comes to operations at a district and producer level, and open to building partnerships with organizations that can offer knowledge, science and technology that aides them in being better stewards of water.

The Oldman Watershed Council was invited to attend the St. Mary River Irrigation District’s “The SEE of Water” tour on July 19, 2016 that highlighted the social, environmental and economic impacts of irrigation water.

It was a great experience for me to attend this tour, as I have been disconnected from the rural sector for a few years. It was nice to catch up with some familiar faces and meet some new folks as well. Having grown up at Bow Island and having a dad who works as a water supervisor (previously for SMRID, currently for EID) - in addition to my degree in Geography that focused on agriculture and the environment - makes opportunities like these rewarding for me.

The first stop was a tour of the Birds of Prey wetlands where we were welcomed by Colin Weir who is one of the founders of the foundation. The centre acts as bird sanctuary with many birds of prey species, but equally important is the man-made wetland that was developed from a low-lying prairie wetland that was historically surrounded by cultivated fields.

The site was designated as a regional storm water retention area and the Birds of Prey foundation, Town of Coaldale and Alberta Environment pursed the opportunity to build a site that includes reclaiming the original native wetland habitat; providing land that would house a birds of prey rescue facility; and constructing a new wildlife education facility/tourist attraction.

To ensure that water levels were sustained through our hot, dry summers, partnerships were formed with the Town of Coaldale and SMRID and they agreed to provide water through the distribution system. Currently, the foundation and their partners are aiming to expand the wetlands to the west and north of the facility. The foundation relies on irrigation water supply to keep the facilities unique. Wetlands provide habitat to birds that call the centre home and wild birds that stop by.

More importantly, the wetlands naturally filter and clean water in the wetlands that is released downstream in to the Oldman River.

Travelling east down Highway #3, we stopped at a factory well, known by locals for their massive piles of sugarbeets along the road. The Lantic Sugar Factory, or Rogers Sugar, briefed us on their operations that began in 1947 with the construction of the factory that was delayed due to World War 2 and finally opened for operation in 1950. Taber was one of 3 factories in southern Alberta the survived over the years with its ideal location in the middle of southern Alberta’s agricultural hub.

Sugarbeets require 20 inches of water per year from irrigation water. What makes southern Alberta great for growing Sugarbeets you may ask? Long growing days, low residual nitrogen in the soils that makes for easy management of fertilizers and of course, consistent water supply from irrigation districts. The factory required 3700 cubic meters of water a day from irrigation water for production but, also uses town water for other needs. A water purification system was invested in by Lantic. The system consists of an anaerobic digester and additional treatment that treats the waste water from Sugarbeet production to Alberta Environment’s standards that allows the water to safely return into the Oldman River.

FRENCH FRIES !!! Now that I have your attention, let’s talk about Lamb-Weston - ConAgra. The Lamb-Weston factory is located a few km east of the Town of Taber and processes potatoes that are grown in southern Alberta. Lamb-Weston purchases potatoes grown locally by potato farmers and makes frozen french fries and specialty potato products (i.e. hash browns).

Most of the french fries are shipped around North America to large fast food chains - A&W Canada, for example. There are three types of potatoes that make the best french fries: Shepody, Rangers and Russet Burbanks. It takes approximately 15-18 acre inch of water to grow potatoes over the 52,000 acres of potatoes grown in southern Alberta. The convenience of having irrigation water readily available allows potato farmers to grow some of the best potatoes in the world for french fries.

In addition to making delicious potato products for us to eat, the Lamb-Weston factory has received some honorable awards for their sustainable practices. In 2000, they received an Alberta Emerald Award for having “Zero Discharge Approach to Effluent Management”. This proactive waste management system not only protects the quality of water in the Oldman River, but it also enhances agricultural health and opportunities in the region by providing an additional source of irrigation water that is utilized by area producers.

All factory water is treated by a bio-digester, aerated and stored in lagoons and re-used to irrigate local pastures. Lamb-Weston is licensed to remove 2400 cubic decametres of water from Fincastle Lake annually. This reservoir is operated by the Taber Irrigation District which provided the water license. 90% of this water is returned to irrigate nearby agricultural land. Local ranchers are then grazing their cattle on the pastures which in term, produces healthy, happy beef cattle. The fields where the waste water is used are extensively tested to ensure they are capable of utilizing the additional nutrient without damage to the soil or to water quality.

The factory also received an LEED Silver Certification in 2015 from having 95-98% of waste diverted from the landfill from their factory. This includes waster from office operations, production/packaging and shipping. They are aiming for the same designation this year.

The Lakeside Hutterite Colony greeted us with delicious homemade food as they seated us in their dining room for our lunch break. On the menu was smoked pork (from their own farm), soup, chicken biscuits, veggies, salad, raspberry pie and of course a little taste of their homemade wine. The colony has been in operation since 1935. They are close to self-sustaining, purchasing very little produce from other towns and cities. The colony's garden alone can supply up to 10 other colonies with food depending on what they need! Thank you again for the amazing spread; nothing compares to homemade, locally grown food made with love!


Chin Lake is a series of reservoirs south of Taber that has 1 of 3 hydro power plants in SMRID, the Chin Chute Power Plant. The hydro plant was developed in 1994 under the Small Power Research and Development program by the Irrigation Canal Power Cooperative Ltd. or IRRICAN Power. IRRICAN Power is a partnership of the Raymond Irrigation District, St. Mary River Irrigation District and Taber Irrigation District.

The plant has the capacity to produce 11 - 13 MW (17,000 HP). Irrigation water flows from the main canal into the plant, is released into the reservoir, and eventually back downstream into the main canal. Output can be increased slightly when Chin reservoir is drawn down and the available head (drop) is higher than the design head. The power produced from the plant is sold to the province and integrated to the power grid.

On our way back to Lethbridge, we stopped at the Coles farmstead which has been operating in the area for 3 generations. Ken Coles, who also works for Farming Smarter, took over farm operations from his dad recently and found that juggling a full-time job, his family and his farm was going to be hard. He wanted to find a way to reduce his time spent managing crops. He partnered with Southern Drip Irrigation Systems and they developed a demo farm research project on 104 acres of his property.

Here they installed an underground, low flow drip irrigation system that is tested on a field that had been planted with seed Canola. The plan is to research this method of irrigation for 5 years on crops suitable for this sort of irrigation. The life expectancy of a system like this is 20-25 years with proper maintenance (i.e. periodic flushing of sediment from the lines). CLEAN, CLEAR irrigation water is key to keeping the system working properly. Other aspects that should be taken into consideration are the type of crops planted as root intrusion can be a concern and rodents need to be managed to reduce damage to the lines.

Efficiency of this drip system is 95-98% which is awesome in terms of water lost when compared to a drop nozzle pivot that is only about 70% efficient. The cost of a system like this isn’t cheap but has benefits other than reducing water loss; there is also the ability to band fertilizer into the soil with the drip system. Banding fertilizers is a cost-effective to apply fertilizer with good nutrient use efficiency.

Ken Coles says he is very excited about the new demo farm and looks forward to testing and tweaking the drip system for water management and fertility. It is going to be used as a demo for research and for educational/informative tours. The drip system is not available for funding under the province's current Growing Forward program yet, but he suspects that it will be available in future years.

The tour ended with a stop in Lethbridge that had us looking at the use of irrigation water in an urban setting. Henderson Lake was originally built as part of the SMRID system and has transitioned to act more like a storm water retention pond for the city. Irrigation water is used for make up in the lake and also for irrigating the surrounding park and golf course. The city makes use of the irrigation water and flushes stagnant lake water out of Henderson Lake to keep it looking clean and algae free for recreation users at the park.

Many of the storm ponds throughout the city utilize water from irrigation districts as make up water in the pond. A new storm pond facility is being built in Legacy Park that is under construction on the north side. SMRID irrigation water will also be used for make up to maintain water levels, flush the stagnant pond water and to irrigate the surrounding park.
As you can tell, irrigation water has a diversified value and is not just for agricultural purposes.

The public can tend to forget that the water in the rivers and irrigation canals in the Oldman Watershed originates from the same source (the headwaters).

We ALL use it for drinking, we use it to grow our food, we use it to process our food, we use it to recreate with and for wildlife habitat as well! Water is life! Irrigation districts are doing a great job with ensuring their role in providing clean, clear drinking water for years to come. They are always on top of developing partnerships and looking into new innovative ways that they can improve their operations for all users of water in the Oldman watershed.

Derrick Krizsan - MD of Taber
St.Mary River Irrigation District